Originally appeared in the summer 2017 Issue of American Fitness Magazine
It all changed with one tragic tackle on April 10, 2005. Brian Nguyen was head athletic trainer (AT) of the Los Angeles Avengers in the Arena Football League. Ambitious, dedicated and caring to the core, he was right where he wanted to be: training the players on a professional sports team. The Avengers had just scored a touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, one of his tacklers piled into the kick returner and a defender—then collapsed.
Al Lucas, 26, was unconscious on the field when Nguyen arrived at his side. “As the head AT, I was holding his head and his neck,” Nguyen recalls. “And then he stopped breathing.” Soon afterward, Lucas was pronounced dead at a Los Angeles hospital. “His C3 had exploded from the impact,” Nguyen says. “It was just such a heavy thing to hold for the rest of the season. It hit me in the heart.”
That dark day would, in fact, trigger a change of heart in Nguyen—and alter the trajectory of his career. Today, this NASM PES and CES trains clients from all walks of life in Redondo Beach, California, but he is best known as the personal trainer who puts Hollywood A-listers through their paces—and the man partially responsible for Mark Wahlberg’s fighting physique.
Those who know Nguyen say his persistently impassioned demeanor and simmering intensity inspire even the most reluctant nonathletes to believe they could beat Usain Bolt in a footrace.
Though he came close to losing his passion after that tragic event in Los Angeles, it turned out that the same forces that propelled him into a career in pro sports would send him in a new direction and make him one of the most renowned fitness professionals in the business.
It’s All About the Work
When American Fitness caught up with Nguyen for a call this spring, he was in a relaxed state—admittedly not his natural frequency. “This place is beautiful, man,” Nguyen says by phone from Kauai, Hawaii. “There’s an amazing breeze. The flowers are incredible. I just got back from ziplining with my daughter, which was so special. I feel very lucky to be here right now.” Then, a pause. “But I’m ready to get back to work,” he says with a jolt of excitement.
For Nguyen, taking a brief break from his hectic work schedule (the Hawaii vacation lasted only a few days) is a rarity. For more than 20 years, he’s pushed his limits in hopes of becoming the best so that he can help others to do the same. That has meant working harder than anyone else…showing up early and staying late…defeating darkness and difficulty to fuel progress…and, most of all, giving everything he has to as many people as possible. Indeed, this diehard dedication has enabled Nguyen to build an impressive résumé.
He started out working his way up to the National Football League before becoming head AT for the Avengers. In addition to working with celebs like Wahlberg, Mila Kunis and Will Ferrell, he has been a go-to trainer and coach for sports movies like The Longest Yard, Invincible and The Fighter. His track record is proof positive that grand efforts can give rise to grand rewards.
For Nguyen, taking a brief break from his hectic work schedule is a rarity. For more than 20 years, he’s pushed his limits in hopes of becoming the best so that he can help others to do the same.
In the Chinese Zodiac, the Dragon is the mightiest of all signs. Dragons are driven, unafraid of challenges and willing to take risks. With such attributes baked into his birth year, Nguyen knew early on that his parents expected a lot from him.
A Fiery Passion Is Ignited
Nguyen grew up as a first-generation American, born to a Vietnamese father and Filipino mother. “It was the typical Asian household,” he says. “The biggest thing my Dad wanted was to have a Year-of-the-Dragon-born son. He got one.” In the Chinese Zodiac, the Dragon is the mightiest of all signs. Dragons symbolize dominance and ambition, and prefer to live by their own rules. Allowed to explore their will without others hampering their progress, they usually find great success, according to ancient lore.
Dragons are driven, unafraid of challenges and willing to take risks. With such character attributes baked into his birth year, Nguyen knew early on that his parents expected a lot from him. “The only thing they ever wanted me to do was to study and go to medical school.
And I hated studying,” says Nguyen. “But no matter what it is you choose to do, there’s this mentality Asian parents have that you’ve always got to do better and be better.” Nguyen wholeheartedly embraced their “Today I Can Do Anything” attitude (if not their my-son-is-a-doctor dreams).
After high school, Nguyen enrolled at UCLA as a kinesiology major and set his sights on becoming a member of the school’s volleyball team. He loved to play and thought he’d make a great addition to their roster—until he walked into the gymnasium.
“When I went to try out, I noticed that everyone else was about 3 feet taller than me,” Nguyen says, exaggerating slightly. Standing 5'4", he would never play NCAA Division I volleyball, but he wasn’t ready to give up on sports altogether. “How could I be involved if I wasn’t a player?” he asked himself. Then he noticed a guy wearing a UCLA Sports Medicine T-shirt and asked him about it.
The wearer said he was an intern for the Acosta Center, UCLA’s athletic complex, which was accepting applications for the upcoming football season. Something clicked. Nguyen immediately applied to the athletic department and soon was accepted into the program.
“I didn’t know anything about football at the time, but I knew that this was where I needed to be,” he says. “And I fell in love with it.” Nguyen soon discovered that rehab is a huge component of an athletic trainer’s work. “That’s when I [began to learn] how to program exercise for rehabilitation,” he says. “I loved the equation of being able to provide exercise prescriptions and get results that allow players to achieve their best.”
Always thinking of his next move, Nguyen decided that if he wasn’t going to become the doctor his parents had hoped for, he’d have to do something equally impressive. “I knew that I was going to work in the NFL,” he says. He also knew that his UCLA sports medicine internship offered an excellent foundation for him to get there.
“I realized that the AT staff at UCLA had great connections. And so I decided I was going to be the best I could possibly be. I was going to work the hardest because I know these guys appreciate hard work. They always talked about how they want to see us working all day and all night, and so that’s what I did. And to my parents’ dismay, I said, ‘Screw the studies; I’ll be good with Bs and Cs.’”
His work ethic and ability to connect with players, coaches and ATs paid off. “I applied for NFL gigs after my first year of UCLA sports medicine. One morning I got a call asking if I wanted to do a summer camp with the [Jacksonville] Jaguars. And I responded, ‘Would I ever?!’ I hung up the phone and then had to ask, ‘Where the hell is Jacksonville?’ I did the AT stuff there for the summer and got to feel what pro sports was like.”
The Jaguars’ AT staff was so impressed that they asked him back the following two summers. During that time, he earned his CSCS (certified strength and conditioning coach) and NATA (National Athletic Trainer Association) credentials. After he graduated from UCLA with a sports medicine degree, he took the position of full-time assistant AT to the Jaguars and, a few years later, the L.A. Avengers “recruited” him to be chief trainer and conditioning coach. He jumped at the chance to move back to his home state and to take on a more prominent role with a professional team.
A Forte in Fitness—and Leadership
The Avengers job was a big deal after working in Jacksonville with respected NFL strength and conditioning coaches like Jerry Palmieri and Greg Finnegan. “Now I was the guy on the field with the players. I was the guy that warmed them up and worked on their patterns. I did the in-season and offseason stuff. [When I was an assistant AT], I appreciated making the Gatorade and taping the ankles, but it’s so much fun when you’re on the field working with the players and getting them ready for the game.”
Back in Los Angeles, Nguyen met Luga Podesta, MD, team physician for the Avengers. Podesta is now the director of sports medicine at St. Charles Orthopedics in East Setauket, New York.
“We worked together as a sports medicine team, along with another AT, Marco Nuñez, who was Brian’s assistant,” Podesta says. “We were in communication 10 times a day at minimum regarding players and treatments and evaluations. I would be with him at least three times a week during the season—twice to evaluate patients in the middle of the week and then [again] at home games.” Podesta, whose résumé includes employers like Major League Baseball and the NFL, knew that Nguyen was remarkable.
“I’ve been around a lot of trainers at every level. Brian is one of the best, if not the best, that I’ve worked with over the years. I knew he wasn’t long for being confined to the training room. His forte was fitness and getting guys in optimal shape.”
Adds Nuñez, MS, ATC, now the head athletic trainer for the Los Angeles Lakers: “Brian was happy when other people succeeded. For example, when a player would score a touchdown, it was almost as if he scored the touchdown. That’s how happy he was for his athletes.” Returning to Southern California also gave Nguyen a chance to dabble in another high-profile world: Hollywood. “One day I got a call from a production company, which is now known as Game Changing Films.
They were looking for an AT and strength and conditioning coach for a football movie,” he explains. The film would be Adam Sandler’s 2005 remake of The Longest Yard. “From that one movie—which was a huge production—I got to know a lot of producers. I was asked back the next summer to take care of the movie Semi Pro. That was followed by BASEketball, The Game Plan with The Rock and We Are Marshall.”
Nguyen enjoyed the extra work and the added challenge of training actors, but he never expected to leave pro sports. Then came the loss of Al Lucas on that April afternoon at Staples Center, and something changed.
Nuñez explains that Nguyen saw his players as more than athletes or professional colleagues. “He saw them as friends and family.” “The next year, he and I would talk on a regular basis, and I could tell that his love affair for athletic training and being in the sports environment had changed. You could tell he wanted to move on from it,” says Nuñez.
Building Actors Into Athletes While Staying Grounded
A few months later, Nguyen got a call to work on a football movie called Invincible, starring Mark Wahlberg. The actor was in incredible shape, Nguyen says, but he kept getting injured while running drills on set. When Wahlberg asked him about the endless injuries, Nguyen recognized the problem: a distinct lack of functional training. “‘You train to look camera-ready,’ I told him, ‘but that won’t translate to the field the way you want it to.’ ”
The actor was impressed with Nguyen’s knowledge and expertise and asked him to join his infamous “entourage” and become his full-time trainer. “As much as I loved taking guys from being in the worst possible place and helping them overcome injuries, I decided that I was going to do the Wahlberg thing,” he says. “I went for it and he gave me so much opportunity. While he needed my help keeping him from injury, it was still very much fitness-focused. That’s how I got my entry into the fitness industry and I began to make a lot of connections.”
Nguyen got a call to work on a movie starring Mark Wahlberg. When the actor asked Nguyen about his endless training injuries, Nguyen recognized the problem: a distinct lack of functional training. The actor was impressed.
Twelve years later, Nguyen still works with Wahlberg and remains the head of athletic performance for “The Real Entourage,” though he no longer trains the actor full-time. He opened BRIK Fitness in 2013 in Redondo Beach, California, where he worked just as zealously with a wide range of not-so-famous clients.
One of those clients is Bo Kaplan, president and CEO of Lakeshore Learning. “He gives more than he asks,” Kaplan says. “And that’s rare in this day and age. He has such a generous heart. He genuinely wants to make your whole life better.” Kaplan, a 42-year-old husband and father of five, believes that one of Nguyen’s greatest assets is his ability to relate to and inspire his clients.
“He would set goals, walk me through what we’re doing and why—but not in a way that was over my head or boring, or speaking so he could speak. He was more into being interested than interesting. This is always a great quality for anyone offering a service. He knew what was important to me and was able to move me on the things I was wrong about.”
Still Leading With His Heart
Nuñez, now at the pinnacle of pro sports training with the [Lakers], still marvels at Nguyen’s approach. “His work ethic is incredible. His commitment and passion for what he does are incredible. There are only a few people that I’ve ever met that have that much passion and commitment for what they do. That’s why he’s been so successful.”
Never satisfied with the status quo, Nguyen continues to find ways to make an impact on the fitness industry for clients and coaches alike. In May of 2017, he shuttered the doors of BRIK Fitness and started a new endeavor, Elementally Strong, which he describes as a business “dedicated to the art and practice of strength training, coaching and character development.”
Nguyen has also taken on the role of master instructor for TRX® and speaker for Perform Better, and this year he also became an inaugural member of the Under Armour® Performance Team and an inaugural master instructor for Everlast®. “When I was on the road with Wahlberg, I read this book called Conversations With God,” he says. “In it, there’s a passage that states, ‘A true master is not the one with the most students, but one who creates the most masters.’ That quote resonated with me and made me realize that I must teach. [My knowledge] isn’t going to stop with me; I want to be able to share what I have.”
One of Nguyen’s greatest priorities is to make sure that today’s coaches and trainers are in it for the right reasons and willing to do the work—and whether they’re ready to suffer some dark days along the way. “Every trainer needs to ask themselves what they really love about being a coach. Because that’s what it is. Nobody cares about what you know until they know how much you care. That’s tantamount to life. “Ultimately, you are going to be a coach for someone else.
If you’re the person that’s taking a bunch of selfies or you care more about your workouts than your clients, you’re going down the wrong path. People don’t follow you because you’ve got a great body. They follow you because you care.” He adds, “You will have a hard time with this profession if you don’t realize why you’re in it. If you get frustrated because your clients aren’t committed—that’s on you. It’s on you to help them create the commitment.”
Brian Nguyen’s Career Highlights
Assistant athletic trainer, Jacksonville Jaguars,
National Football League, 2000–2002
Head athletic trainer, Los Angeles Avengers,
Arena Football League, 2002–2006
Coach and athletic trainer for The Longest Yard,
Semi Pro, BASEketball, The Game Plan, We Are Marshall, Invincible, The Fighter
Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Will Ferrell, Blake Griffin,
Amy Adams, Adam Sandler, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
NASM Master Instructor, CES, PES
FMS I, II, SFMA I, FCS
Speaker, Perform Better, a functional fitness company
Inaugural Member, Under Armour® Performance Team
Inaugural Master Instructor, Everlast®
Master Instructor, TRX®
Photography by Cory Sorensen.
Fitness models: Alexandria Bronson, Brad Lecraw.
Many thanks to Warren Lichtenstein, owner of CrossFit South Bay, in Torrance, California, who generously gave us access to his awesome, well-equipped box to shoot these training sequences!